Providing Protection | Through Breast Milk
Breastfed babies are provided with protection from developing allergies during the breastfeeding period and well into the future for two major reasons, says Ann Russell, IBCLC, of Poway, Calif. “[Breastfed] babies are exposed to fewer allergens in the first months of life, and secondly, the first feedings of colostrum literally ‘seal the gut’ (the porous lining of the intestines), providing a barrier to the absorption of allergy-producing agents.”
Additionally, both colostrum and Mother’s mature milk are rich in antibodies, providing a baby with the benefit of the mother’s immune system until the baby develops his own functional immune system at about 6 months of age.
Children breastfed for more than six months are seven times less likely to suffer from allergies at all.
The earlier and more often food is ingested, the greater the likelihood for food to become an allergen, says Russell. Cow’s milk tops the list of food allergens. “There are more than 20 substances in cow’s milk that have been shown to be human allergens,” she says.
Baby formulas are derived from cow’s milk. While soy formulas are available for babies with allergic reactions to milk products, Russell points out that these babies suffer a great deal along the way to finding the right formula. Allergic reactions in babies range from spitting up, diarrhea and colic to congestion, ear infections, and sleeplessness.
The Power of Protection
According to information released by La Leche League International allergies have increased tenfold in the last 20 years. Currently, one in five children shows some degree of allergies by age 20. However, children breastfed for more than six months are seven times less likely to suffer from allergies at all.
Rebecca Escalante of San Diego, Calif., is the mother of three boys, ages 5, 7 and 9. She fed the two older boys formula but breastfed the youngest. “My oldest boy suffers from allergies all the time, to the point where he gets frequent double-ear infections and is becoming immune to antibiotics,” she says. “My middle boy has some allergies, but my youngest, the one I breastfed, has no allergies whatsoever. I firmly believe that my youngest, Nick, is so healthy because he was a breastfed baby.” She breastfed Nick for more than 11 months.
According to Russell, receiving the lifelong benefit of reduced occurrence of allergies in relation to breastfeeding stems from the development of the immune system. Babies who are fed breast milk solely for the first six months of life are only exposed to what the mother eats and secretes into her milk, lessening the absorption of these foods. The introduction of other foods prior to the full development of the baby’s immune system may set him up for a lifetime of sensitivities to certain foods.
Having the added boost of Mom’s immune capabilities lessens or eliminates the predisposition of allergic reactions to other substances as well, including pollen, dust, and molds. “I see it all the time,” says Russell, of children who suffer from environmentally-related allergies who had been formula-fed as infants.
The Power of Perfection
The connection is simple. “To think that we could create in a laboratory a formula that would be better for human infants than Mother’s milk is ludicrous and fool-hardy,” Russell says. “Mother’s milk is the perfect food for human infants,” Russell adds that Mother’s milk actually alters its properties as the baby gets older, always providing what the baby needs in the way of nutrients and levels of protection through the mother’s antibodies. “Mother’s milk is a living substance,” she says.
Peta Flores of San Diego, Calif., is the mother of a 15-month-old son. She is also 7 months pregnant with her second child. “I breastfed my son until he didn’t want to breastfeed anymore, and he has always been so healthy,” she says. When told about the link between breastfeeding and a lower occurrence of allergies, Flores isn’t surprised. “Breast milk provides exactly what a baby needs,” she says.
Flores is planning to breastfeed her new baby as well. “I knew that breast milk kept babies healthier due to getting the mother’s immunities, but the reduction of allergies is an added bonus!” she says.
According to Russell, occasionally a breastfed baby will have an allergic reaction to something the mother has eaten. “The mother should eliminate the food from her diet and will most likely be able to reintroduce it later as the baby gets older,” she says. Thus, food allergies triggered through breast milk, when properly managed, can be overcome and do not necessarily result in a lifelong sensitivity to the food. “The stronger the allergic reaction in the baby, the longer the mother should wait to reintroduce the food into her diet,” Russell says.
Although babies receive the greatest protection during the time of breastfeeding, the protection from allergies offered via Mother’s milk has far-reaching, lifelong benefits.